I don’t remember when I first read the book of Ecclesiastes. I first taught it at the Catholic Stonehill College. There we were free to teach Intro to Religion however we wanted, so to follow my own intellectual curiosity I made it “God in the West”. The one thing we were required to teach was the book of Exodus, which I suspect the department had selected for an uplifting social-justice message in which God acts to free a people from slavery. But the Hebrew Bible, let alone the whole Christian Bible, has never spoken with a single voice, and I selected Ecclesiastes to teach alongside Exodus because the contrast between them is so remarkable.
Much like the Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon), which it immediately precedes, Ecclesiastes is a book you don’t expect to find in the Bible. It makes you wonder: what is this book doing here? The Song of Songs bears the most obvious contrast with what we think we know about the Bible: here is a text that is obviously about a young couple having sex, seemingly celebrating it, and they don’t even appear to be married. That’s not the sort of thing that we are led to imagine would appear in the Bible. But it’s in there.
Ecclesiastes’s contrast to the rest of the Bible is a little subtler, but it’s still notable. Exodus, and other prophetic books, give you a God who acts in the world with righteousness, freeing his chosen people from slavery with terrifying wonders. Ecclesiastes gives you a God who does not.
What one instead finds in Ecclesiastes above all is a bittersweet depiction of the unjust world, a world governed by fickle fortune. The text hauntingly proclaims: “All things have I seen in the days of my vanity: there is a just man that perisheth in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man that prolongeth his life in his wickedness.” Or more famously: “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”
And I love Ecclesiastes for all of that. In midterm evaluations, one of my Stonehill students complained that I was only teaching “the bad parts of the Bible, like Ecclesiastes.” I responded: “for me these aren’t the bad parts. I’d say it’s my favourite book of the Bible. You don’t have to agree with me; you’re free to hate it. But you need to know that it’s in there; if you’re Catholic, this is part of your tradition, and you need to think about it.”
I love Ecclesiastes because its unjust world is the real world. (That, and I love the beauty of the text – a beauty the Byrds appreciated when they made a portion of it into “Turn! Turn! Turn!”. That’s why I’m using the King James Version here; regardless of the translation’s accuracy or archaism, I know of no other English translation that matches the beauty of King James.)
Ecclesiastes claims that God judges the righteous and the wicked – but he doesn’t do anything about it! Not even in the afterlife: there is no mention of a heaven or hell, and “the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.” This is the world that we moderns know, with no evidence that consciousness goes anywhere after death, and where millions perish unjustly under the horrors authorized by Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot and Putin, for no higher purpose. Where the ultimate fate of the human species is not a kingdom of heaven without end, but extinction.
This God is not ibn Sīnā’s God, who is required for us to understand nature and the world; it is a God whose presence does not seem to make much if any difference to the way the world works. And such a God seems much more representative of the world we actually live in. The claims about God’s judgement, in turn, make sense in the light of Augustine’s and Gandhi’s view that truth is God: your actions are truly good or bad, even though they are not rewarded or punished for being such.
Ecclesiastes gives a warning to eudaimonists: do not expect that your virtue will pay off in external goods. Virtue is virtue and God will judge it, but he will not reward it. Thus Doull takes Ecclesiastes as the model of an ethics where what makes an action good is independent of our desires, in contrast to the Sophists’ view where they are identical – externalism over internalism. With that recognition in mind, the eudaimonist position it’s easiest to end up in is that of the Stoics and Epicureans, where external goods don’t matter; the payoff of virtue is in mental happiness and in the goodness of virtue itself.
This all makes Ecclesiastes sound gloomy and depressing. And to those who were expecting a God-soaked world of divine justice, it is indeed depressing by comparison. But Ecclesiastes looks different when we take it on its own terms. There, what I find inspiring in Ecclesiastes is that in the midst of all this suffering and injustice, we can still find joy and beauty in the everyday, in the cruel, crazy, beautiful world: “it is good and comely for one to eat and to drink, and to enjoy the good of all his labour that he taketh under the sun all the days of his life, which God giveth him: for it is his portion.” Here Ecclesiastes closely resembles the Aztec Cantares Mexicanos and their reminder that “only in passing are we here on earth. In peace and pleasure let us spend our lives: come, let us enjoy ourselves.”
So too I see Ecclesiastes as close to Leonard Cohen’s Zen Judaism, which finds beauty and joy amid the world’s darkness. Cohen knows the Dao is in the piss and shit. God is present in Cohen’s lyrics, but he is a mysterious presence, haunting the world in the background. This God wants it darker – not unlike Krishna, who is also a god for the real world.
I find all of this to be a comfort at those times, which surface in all of our lives, when we are reminded of the world’s injustice: when in the course of our own lives we see the righteous perish and the wicked thrive. We want to see virtue rewarded and vice punished with something more than internal goods – we have a theodicy instinct – but far too often, that’s just not the way the world actually works. Would it be better if it did work that way? Sure, but what matters is it doesn’t. This world is the one we actually we live in. If we are to have a good and happy life, we must have it in this world, not in a just one. Ecclesiastes, like the Cantares, reminds us of a universal lesson also taught in the Desiderata: with all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.